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'Cowspiracy' isn't causing the climate crisis, capitalism is

Jesse McLaren

December 13, 2015

Cowspiracy shines a light on the carbon emissions of the animal agriculture industry, but its beam is so narrow that it leaves the rest of agriculture and the economy hidden from view, and elevates dietary choice to political strategy.

Like many people, Kip Anderson watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and was frustrated by the limited lifestyle choices to stop climate change—like bike riding more often or using less water. He then found out that animal agriculture is responsible for significant emissions and is backed by major powers but is not the focus of many environmental NGOs. He then made a choice. 

He could have made a film connecting animal agriculture to the rest of the oil economy, exposing the massive corporations who dominate the food supply and who have warped our relationships with animals. He could have called for vegans and non-vegans to unite, supporting front-line communities who bear the brunt of climate change, and integrating vegan concerns into a movement for system change and real control over food production and distribution.

But instead he chose to make a film that counterposes animal agriculture to the rest of the oil-dependent economy, dismisses the challenge to tar sands and fracking and the need for climate jobs, blames cows and those who consume animal products, shames environmental NGOs instead of agribusinesses, ignores traditional knowledge about how to live sustainably with animals, and calls non-vegan environmentalists hypocrites—while preaching veganism as the panacea for everything from climate change to world hunger.

The result: protesters inspired by his film denounced the recent People's Climate March in Edmonton: "The organizers only wanted to focus on oil and gas, the safe climate topics and not 'switch focus' to address personal behaviors that can actually make difference."

There would not be a People's Climate March and a climate justice movement were it not for Indigenous communities who have challenged tar sands and fracking, while defending their rights including hunting, fishing and trapping. It's ridiculous to dismiss as "safe topics" the challenge to these powerful industries, and to blame diets that communities have followed sustainably for millenia. How do we place industrialized animal agriculture in its proper context so that the concerns of vegans can integrate with the climate justice movement?

Cowspiracy or cowpitalism?

Cowspiracy raises the important point that the climate crisis is not only driven by oil and gas companies but is also connected to our food system. But instead of challenging the corporations who control food production and distribution, it places all the blame on "animal agriculture." Using decontextualized statistics and graphics, it implies that cows are inherently destructive creatures who waste water while producing the methane that is driving the climate crisis—instead of exposing how capitalism has separated cows from communities, concentrated them in factories and turned them into methane machines.

Kip Anderson claims that "the words sustainable and animal agriculture just is an oxymoron. They can't go together." But as India's leading environmentalist (and vegetarian) Vandana Shiva explains, “Factory farming of livestock is definitely a very important contributor of greenhouse gases, especially methane. But normal livestock—grass fed—are important for a sustainable solution. The problem with many of these studies has been that they take the most industrial practice, for example factory farming for meat…and extrapolate it to the world. As if the whole world treats its livestock in the torturous way that factory farming does.”

As she explains in Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, “Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilization…By using crop wastes and uncultivated land, indigenous cattle do not compete with humans for food; rather, they provide organic fertilizer for fields and thus enhance food productivity…Indian cattle provide more food than they consume, in contrast to those of the U.S. cattle industry, in which cattle consume six times more food than they provide.”

Instead of challenging the corporatization of agriculture, Cowspiracy blames cows—reinforcing the industry's view of animals as abstract production units disconnected from communities. As Vandana Shiva explains, “Livestock are absolutely key. The tragedy is on the one hand we've got those who would put animals into factory farms—and that is the source of methane emissions, not free-grazing livestock…And there's the problem that those who think they love animals push for a situation where there will be no animals. So we need to avoid both these extremes that are anti-animal by denying an effective role for the animal, and an effective role of a farmer. And I think it comes from the paradigm that assumes that both humans and animals can only have a predatory relationship with nature. No, we can have a harmonious relationship with nature.”

Capitalism, sustainability and choice

Our harmonious relationship with nature was not disrupted by consuming animals (which communities have done sustainably for millenia) but by a relatively recent system of production that has separated us from nature and turned animal and plant worlds—and humans themselves -- into sources of profit.

Not only does Cowspiracy fail to differentiate between traditional and corporatized uses of animals, it also ignores carbon emissions from capitalist agriculture in general. Our food system is not unsustainable because it includes animals, it is unsustainable because of capitalism—which is based on colonizing Indigenous territories, driving peasants off the land, exploiting workers for profit and reducing animals and plants to units of production.

In doing so, capitalism in Europe by the nineteenth century created a metabolic rift between humans and nature and eroded soil fertility, sparking a search for artificial fertilizers. As Karl Marx described, “Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres…It disturbs the metabolic interaction between [humans] and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by [humans] in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the fertility of the soil… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.”

As capitalism has developed it has become concentrated and centralized into massive corporations that dominate every industry—making our entire economy, including the plants and animals we eat, dependent on oil. As Vandana Shiva explains in Soil Not Oil,

“Industrialized, globalized agriculture is a recipe for eating oil. Oil is used for the chemical fertilizers that go to pollute the soil and water. Oil is used to displace small farmers with giant tractors and combine harvesters. Oil is used to industrially process food. Oil is used for the plastic in packaging. And finally, more and more oil is used to transport food farther and farther away from where it is produced. Fossil fuels are the heart of industrial agriculture.”

Cowspiracy is right to highlight the massive subsidies and powerful interests that sustain the beef industry and create artificial supply and demand, but this applies to all industries—including the massive agribusinesses that have reduced our diets to corn, soy and wheat monocrops, sustained by massive emissions in fertilizers, machinery, storage and transportation.

Calling for dietary "choice" between capitalist plant products over capitalist animal products does nothing to challenge the system that is driving climate change and constraining choices. Any limited choice some of us might have in consumption—a choice determined by the inequitable distribution of resources and income—does not challenge the system of production.

Consumerism vs climate justice

For decades the environmental movement has taken this system for granted. By depoliticizing the environment, NGOs have traditionally focused on reforming single issues by lobbying governments and calling for limited consumer choice over the products capitalism has produced—rather than challenging the profit-driven system of production and inequitable distribution.

Even worse, some environmental groups have scapegoated Indigenous communities for continuing their cultural practices. As Francis Frank, co-chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said in response to protests against Indigenous whaling on the west coast in the late 1990s, “The protests that are being engineered are just another form of eco-colonialism…They are arguing for the continued oppression of our people.”

The climate justice movement has risen in recent years by going beyond the old politics of individual consumerism, towards mass movements based on anti-colonial and anti-capitalist politics. It's exciting that environmental NGOs are joining with Indigenous and labour groups to fight for the system change necessary to stop climate change. Environmental NGOs still have structural limitations and don't address all the issues, like the fact that the U.S. military is the largest oil consumer on the planet (a fact ignored by Cowspiracy). But the response of anti-war groups hasn't been to suggest a conspiracy between NGOs and the military, but rather to integrate their concerns with the climate justice movement -- like the "No war, no warming" contingent at the 100% possible demonstration in Ottawa.

Instead Cowspiracy names and shames a dozen NGOs without naming any agribusinesses, dismisses demands for climate jobs and ignores Indigenous communities while claiming that those who eat meat are hypocrites. The filmmaker even presents himself as the persecuted climate hero, without interviewing or even mentioning Indigenous and front-line communities who bear the brunt of the climate crisis and of state repression.

The documentary also claims that a vegan diet will end world hunger, without addressing inequalities in food production and distribution. That seems to be the point, as Kip Anderson explained in an interview: "The solution is really simple…It doesn't even take necessarily widespread transformation with the legal system and our politics. It's basically just switching our diet.” This results in just another limited consumer choice, sold as "change." This isn't surprising, coming from a self-described "serial entrepreneur" pushing his DVDs and t-shirt, and a few celebrities who want to appeal to environmentalists, but it shouldn't be a guide for the movement.

Solidarity and system change

As climate organizer (and vegan) Cam Fenton wrote, “we need system change to stop climate change, and our personal dietary choices are not system change. Changing lightbulbs and taking shorter showers wasn't a really effective strategy for the climate and that's what switching out steak for tofu seems to be to me. Not only won't it do a whole lot to solve the climate crisis, it actually doesn't even get at the heart of what you’re purporting to be pushing — -- reducing emissions from agriculture. If the goal is really to deal with the emissions from agriculture, and these emissions are a big problem, it's time to stop telling people not to eat meat and start figuring out how you're going to stand with peasant farmers who are being forced by the Monsantos of the world to abandon their traditional methods of agriculture for massive mono-crop operations. It's time to support communities that are standing up to stop cattle barons who want to clear massive tracts of land  --  like the rainforest in South America -- to expand their operations. These things, might help to tip the scales and bring down emissions from agriculture in a way that more vegans just won't, and they might win you some allies along the way.”

These alliances are growing. A couple of years ago Heiltsuk community organizer Jess Housty wrote an article on eight ways settlers can support Idle No More, including attending rallies and challenging racism. These “personal behaviors” that can actually make a difference, rather than simply switching diets.

Earlier this year the Heiltsuk Nation and its allies stopped the Department of Fisheries and Oceans from over-fishing herring stocks on the west coast. The strategy was not to claim that fishing is inherently unsustainable and to demand the community end their traditional fish diet, but to support the Heilstuk Nation that was defending the herring stock and its fishing rights. As Chief Marylin Slett explained, “We're not trying to stop people from making a living. But we need to manage things in a way so we'll have a resource that will sustain everyone into the future...There are strong-willed people in the community that will do everything within their power to protect the herring stocks.”

There is also growing vegan solidarity with Indigenous communities defending their territories: “On the fire at the blockade vegan meals for the Wildlife Defence League cook next to traditional foods for the Klabona Keepers. There is a mutual understanding and respect between the two groups as they work together to stop the over hunting of the Tahltan’s sacred lands...They recognize that it is not their right to tell indigenous people who have welcomed them onto their territory how to live. They realize that the Klabona Keepers have saved more wildlife in their resistance of industrial projects than any person could by changing their diet...Vegans can begin to decolonize our work and fight for the liberation of all, whether it be from the confines of a slaughterhouse or the confines of a colonial state.”

It's examples like these, rather than Cowspiracy, that show how vegan concerns can be incorporated into the climate justice movement, so that we can challenge the corporations and states responsible for the climate crisis, and win collective system change rather than fight over individual diet change.

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